After more than a year of setbacks and struggles to adopt a child, Susan Olson hoped the teenage girl she had seen only in a photograph would be the one to bring home.
Olson, a senior attorney at Austin-based Hormel Foods, discovered that the girl and her siblings were placed in foster care several years ago and had no relative that could parent them. Their caretaker for years has been the state of Minnesota.
One of the girl’s social workers and her foster mother warned Olson that trauma the girl had suffered made her unstable. Undeterred, Olson took classes on dealing with troubled children, hoping she could make the girl feel safe in her home. After rigorous background checks, Olson was approved to adopt a child in May. But in August, Blue Earth County Human Services said Olson wasn’t a suitable placement for the girl and stopped working with Ampersand Families, the adoption agency trying to find the teen a home.
Ampersand’s director, Michelle Chalmers, said Minnesota children often wait years for adoption, despite laws against such long delays.
“The process of trying to adopt a waiting child is significantly more grueling than it has to be,” Chalmers said. “This is not just this case. This happens over and over. This is systemic.”
The problem will likely get worse, as the number of state wards continues to go up. Petitions filed to terminate parental rights have gone up 42 percent since 2010, while Minnesota has failed to meet numerous state and federal standards on how to treat foster children, records show.
This year, the federal government penalized the state for shuffling thousands of children in and out of foster care.
Furious about what happened to her, Olson complained on Sept. 3 to the governor’s office, which appointed her in January 2013 to a state council that oversees outdoor conservation funds. Olson demanded to know why the county blocked the wishes of a child who wanted to be adopted, as well as a qualified parent who wanted to adopt her.
On Thursday, Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson called Olson and told her the state would review the case. Jesson said in a statement to the Star Tribune Friday that her department will “work with them [Blue Earth County] to make sure the needs of this child are met.”
Despite never having met the girl, Olson hopes that means a life with her. “I would absolutely love it if she were living here,” Olson said.
Blue Earth County officials said privacy laws do not allow them to comment on the case.
Chalmers believes Blue Earth County wrongly stopped the adoption out of a disagreement with her agency over its handling of the case. The girl, said Chalmers, desperately wants to be adopted, yet likely has no idea that there’s someone who wants to adopt her.
“These kids don’t know where they’ll be in an hour, or the next day,” she said. “That’s why their behaviors are out of control — they don’t have any sense of belonging.”
A year of waiting
Children ages 5 and under typically don’t wait long to be adopted. It’s far more difficult to find adoptive homes for older children, due in part to a lack of potential parents.
Olson was rare in her desire to adopt an older child. She likes kids, she said, but she feels awkward with younger ones. She was motivated by a story that went viral last year, about a 15-year-old orphaned Florida boy who pleaded with his church congregation for a family.
In April 2014, Olson began the process of getting licensed to adopt, signing with one of the five private agencies in the state that help assist in the process. She took the mandated training, where she learned more about the mental health issues of older foster children. She filled out a form asking for a detailed account of her life history, got fingerprinted and passed a background check.
Then she waited. Olson said it took months for her agency’s social worker to meet with her. When she did, Olson went through another, more exhaustive background study.
Behavior gets worse
Frustrated, Olson switched to another adoption agency, Ampersand, which specializes in finding homes for older children. In February 2015, she was shown the picture of the teenage girl. It was enough to make Olson want to learn more about her. The state granted Olson a license to provide foster care for the girl, which she hoped to do until an adoption was finalized. She took courses on child trauma, and was given access to the girl’s 3-inch-thick file, which showed she suffered from several mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
In June, Olson and people from Ampersand met with Blue Earth County child protection workers, which Olson said was “extremely positive.”
Then in July, Olson spoke with the girl’s therapist, who she said told her the girl had improved since he started treating her for the last two years, but her progress had since stalled. He recommended the girl get more intense therapy; Olson told him she could take the girl to a treatment center at least once a week, she said.
That month Olson said she then met with the girl’s foster mother. The foster mother warned her that the teenager’s behavior was getting worse, and she had no intention of adopting her, Olson said.
The foster mom was not available to comment.
By late July, Olson said she was sure she would be able to adopt the girl. The county scheduled a meeting with Olson and Ampersand social workers but later canceled.
Concerned that the adoption was stalling, an Ampersand social worker visited the girl Aug. 11 and told her she was legally entitled to an attorney, according to Chalmers. By Aug. 17, the girl had a lawyer. The next day, Blue Earth County social worker Sarah Johnson sent an e-mail saying Olson was not an option for the girl. The way that Ampersand tried to find a home for the girl, Johnson wrote, “comes across as intimidation, crossing boundaries, and disrespectful of the team’s knowledge of a long-term client.”
Johnson also said the girl’s therapist indicated she was not ready to move to an adoptive home, according to the e-mail.
Surprised to hear that, Ampersand’s program manager, Joe Wild Crea, called the therapist and read him what the county said. “He said, ‘That’s news to me,’ ” he said.
The therapist could not be reached for comment.
Regardless of the therapist’s assessment, Wild Crea said it’s typical for foster children to act out. “Healing happens in the context of a committed relationship,” he said.
Kids still in foster care
In late August, one of the girl’s siblings was finally adopted, after spending what the child’s adoptive mother said was years in foster care. Another sibling is still in foster care, Wild Crea said.
Olson said she’s encouraged by the DHS’ response, and has not given up hope of adopting the girl. Regardless of the outcome, she said she’ll push hard for changing adoption laws.
“What’s happened to me should never have happened,” she said.